Monday, October 31, 2011

How Dark Are YA Covers, Really?

One last post on cover trends before we move on to other topics: I just have to share the very brilliant Kate Hart's analysis of the darkness of YA covers in 2010. Kate looked at 400 covers of Young Adult novels released in 2010 to see if claims that teen books were all dark were founded:

What she found was very interesting, and incredibly important. Because there's at least one very significant way in which YA covers are not dark, and that's when it comes to race:

I've talked about issues of race in and on the covers of YA fiction at great length before, so I'll let Kate's post speak for itself. I highly encourage you to check out the entire post here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cover Trends in YA Fiction: Why the Obsession with an Elegant Death?

In honor of Halloween (sort of), and of our recent cover conversation, I want to talk this week about a ghastly, gruesome, and growing trend in YA book covers. What trend is that, you might ask?

This is where I say something I didn't ever expect to say in one of these blog posts: trigger warning.

Because the trend is dead girls.
Dead girls in water, dead girls in bathtubs, dead girls in forests, dead girls in pretty dresses. Girls who might be dead, or might just look dead. Dead girls in so many pretty dresses.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love a lot of these covers. Several of the covers pictured above are among the most eye-catching designs I’ve seen in the last year. But it seems like we just can’t get enough of these images, and it’s not just contemporary readers. More than 150 years ago, Edgar Allan Poe argued for the elegance of dead women:
“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death — was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious — “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”
Poe felt that every story should end with the death of a beautiful woman (you may have noticed he was pretty good at following his own rule). And he wasn't even the first; the paintings of many Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite artists reflect the same fascination as those teen book covers:

Even so many years later, the worlds of advertising, pop culture, and fashion have embraced this ideal, churning out image after image of lovely dead ladies:

However long its history, this isn’t a trend that I particularly enjoy—and especially not when it's embraced by women and girls as this trend seems to be. It’s been well-documented* that the media depicts violence against women and glamorizes abuse, rape, murder, and suicide as positive so long as the victim can be sexualized in death. Beyond just desensitizing viewers or making truly horrific acts seem banal through overexposure, images that glamorize violence against women help to dehumanize women and girls. It’s a double-whammy; not only are the women in the photos objectified because, as lifeless characters, they become bodies rather than people, but they are also reduced to their sexualized parts. As Marina DelVecchio explains in just one of many articles about the subject, the dead girl in media “is merely a body, a vacant, empty, vessel intended to contain the needs of others—preferably men—and her body, which is the most desired aspect of her existence, perfect, lithe, smooth and hair-free, is open for interpretation and domination.” Seeing women dehumanized again and again makes it easier for those who are violent against women to justify their actions—and, indeed, to carry out violence against them.

As we learned from my last post, the fact that the above book covers have been successful—the fact that the first impression they offer drives potential readers to explore more, impacting overall sales in a positive way—says something fundamental about the tastes of their target audience. So I can’t help wondering about the larger implications of these images, especially as part of a larger media culture that glorifies a great variety of disturbing images of women.

For months I’ve mentally classified these images among those that I find disturbing and frustrating in the fashion and media industries. But, now that I sit down to write this post, I’m not sure if that’s really what’s going on in the above book covers. Most of the images aren’t blatantly violent or overtly sexual. It might be more appropriate to call them glamorized—they seem less the product of overt “male gaze”**, and more the product of teenage girls’ morbidity. Rather than presenting the idea that violated and dominated women are sexy, these images present the idea that it is beautiful and dramatic and—as Poe would have argued—poetic to be dead.

Now, there’s something about that idea that resonates strongly with teenage girls. Anyone who has worked with teenage girls will know that many have an astonishing taste for that which is melodramatic, desolate, and downright morbid. Parents, maybe you don’t want to hear this, but an extraordinary number of teenage girls are fascinated by the thought of their own deaths. Even if they don’t (and I hope they don’t) actually take part in self-destructive or suicidal acts, most of them think about it at least once. Many think about it a lot. At fifteen my friends and I reveled in images of fallen angels, girls in coffins, and beautiful women dying in the arms of their lovers. We wrote stories about girls like us dying, falling prey to madness, or being found by a boyfriend or a best friend already too close to death to be saved. We adored moments in film and TV like Eponine’s dying lament, “A Little Fall of Rain,” in Les Miserables: a tragic scene in which Marius (who has rejected Eponine’s love—oh, she is such a perfect teen girl character!) holds Eponine in his arms and sings to her as she dies from a bullet wound.

The glamorized images of death that teen girls seem so attracted to could, then, be a reflection of the sadness and morbidity that seems inherent at that age. Perhaps their appeal is in the fact that they validate and make beautiful the very dark thoughts that girls have, and which they have few opportunities to express. Maybe they provide a sense of catharsis, allowing teens to explore the dark things they imagine doing without actually having to participate in self-destructive acts.

But teenage boys suffer just as much from depression and thoughts of self-harm as teenage girls do, and yet I’m hard-pressed to find a YA book cover in which a boy is depicted as beautifully dead or dying. The closest I can come is Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush. But it should be noted that the target audience for Hush, Hush is also female, and a comparison of the model’s powerful physique and active pose to the above girls’ placid, passive death poses suggests that these girls are internalizing very distinct and separate messages about ideal maleness and femaleness in death.

So, after a whole lot of thought, it comes down to this: I believe that this book cover trend—and the larger obsession of teenage girls with the concept of beautiful death—is at least in part the product of internalized misogyny. Girls, I’d argue, are taught from their infancy that their bodies are the most important thing they have to offer. But, at the same time, they are taught by a misogynistic media that their bodies are objects that have little worth, and that even allow or invite violence. And I believe that girls internalize that dehumanization very strongly—not using it to justify or excuse violence against women, but rather experiencing it as a call to action. A beautiful death becomes an understandable—and, for all intents and purposes, an encouraged—goal. It isn’t any wonder that teenage girls romanticize their own deaths. We practically ask them to.

I really want to say about this trend what I did about the normalization of self-destructive behavior in YA novels and the glorification of abusive relationships in Twilight. But, in all honesty, I’m having a hard time convincing myself that this is a thought pattern girls will wholly outgrow. To do so would require the adult world to reinforce the opposite idea: that women’s deaths are not beautiful, that women’s bodies are not objects, and that women are more than just the sum of their parts. And, as you can see above, the world of media for adults doesn’t contradict what we see in book covers for girls; it expands upon it and makes it a hundred times worse.

What’s more, it’s important that we see that the girls who internalize these ideals are living people, not just the passive victims we see depicted on those covers. As they learn to view the female body as both a sexual ideal and an invitation to violence, they begin taking an active role in helping it spread by reflecting it in their lifestyles, their values, and their art. That’s one of the reasons I cringe listening to “Love the Way you Lie” by Eminem and Rihanna; it’s not just Eminem’s graphic description of domestic abuse, but also Rihanna’s wholehearted compliance in and even propagandizing attitude towards abuse that makes the song tragic:
Just gonna stand there and watch me burn.
Well, that's alright because I like the way it hurts.

I don’t fault YA publishers or the covers above for this trend. As I said, I see those covers and the demand from which they stem as the product of, not the force behind, internalized misogyny. But, looking at them as a reflection of teenage girls’ psyches, I’m saddened by what I see and left feeling helpless in the face of forces that seem unstoppable. In the apt and succinct words of my good friend Jenny, “I know that we have to trust teenage girls to cope and persevere and come out of this fight kicking, but honestly I'd rather make all this shit go away.” This time around, I pretty much agree.

*See also this post on the fashion industry, and this one on fashion and advertising, and this one on music videos. And that's just from a quick search.
**For an explanation of the male gaze, try this article.

If you find this subject as depressing as I do, and are starting to feel like one of the teenage girls these covers are intended for, here's a video of an adorable kitten. You're welcome.

Edit: Just found this mini-rant on a similar subject by Allison at Reading Everywhere. Check it out! Even more disturbing images!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Go Ahead and Judge a Book by its Cover. Publishers Do.

If you’re reading this, then I owe you a huge thank you for sticking around through my long, long hiatus. Thank you! It’s been a long couple of months as I split my life between Baltimore and New York, finally uprooting it altogether. Since I last popped in, I’ve settled into both my role as Assistant Marketing Manager at Bloomsbury and Walker Books for Young Readers and my new (hard-won, as any of you who have searched for an apartment in New York will know) home in Brooklyn. Some semblance of sanity is finally returning to my life, and I’m so excited to be back in action, and ready to share some insights picked up in my new role with you.

Making the switch from Editorial to Marketing has shed a whole new, fascinating light on the bookmaking process, and marketing meetings offer so many gems of wisdom for you writing and publishing folks that I hardly know where to start. But today I want to talk about the incredibly important work of a department that’s not my own—but which my department relies on even more than you might expect: Design.

Since you follow reading trends and keep up on publishing industry blogs, you no doubt know already that the statement “You can’t judge a book by its cover” isn’t absolute truth. You probably know that the time and effort put into a book’s cover is usually a reflection of how much its publisher believes in it, and that in many cases a really great cover actually does reflect really great content. And if you’ve been reading industry blogs (including this one) for a few years, you know that a cover can—rightly or wrongly—decide where a book gets shelved in a bookstore and whether a certain type of reader picks it up.

The truth is that cover art has always been a priority for readers. Scott Westerfeld pointed this out at an event celebrating his (gorgeously illustrated) Leviathan trilogy a few years ago; projecting the image of an early-twentieth century cover of War of the Worlds on the ceiling with his phone (that’s Scott for you), he pointed out that its illustrator had been even more important to the publisher than its author—the illustrator’s name was plastered over the top of the cover in huge, bold letters, and H.G. Wells was scrawled along the side only as an afterthought (I wish I could find the image to show you all, but I can't!).

That may seem like it’s no way to treat a writer who’s become one of sci-fi’s defining voices, but there’s no doubt that the book’s publisher created that cover with a mind to what would give the book the best possible chance of selling, and in this case that was the well-recognized name of a celebrated illustrator. But there have since been countless redesigns of the book, each reflecting the changing priorities of its target audience.

That’s not at all uncommon in the book world, and whether it’s repackaging a classic for a commercial audience, reprinting a book with the movie poster for its cover, changing an original cover to appeal to audiences in another country, or repackaging a book to sell to a different age group, publishers are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating book covers as tools for reaching untapped audiences.

What I didn’t realize until beginning this new position was just how much the onus for recognizing the success or failure of a book’s cover falls not on the design team, but rather on marketing and sales. The marketing department lives at the crossroads of the industry’s artistic side (your lovely manuscript, your editor’s vision for it, and the designer’s interpretation of the story) and its business end (the positioning of your book in relation to others, its ability to compete in a crowded marketplace, and the sales numbers the company needs to keep thriving). Through our sales team, we receive constant feedback from buyers at local, chain, and online bookstores about what readers are looking for.

Buyers are intensely aware of what readers are drawn to and what they skip right over, and they have the sales numbers to back up their opinions. Their knowledge is very market-specific; they know, for instance, what fourteen- to eighteen-year-old readers of dystopian fiction with a paranormal bent will prefer, and they might even suggest slight modifications that will attract some paranormal romance fans too, without alienating the book's primary market. They know what covers flop in certain geographic regions or with certain age groups, where and when to design a cover to appeal to its audience’s parents rather than the audience itself, and from their communication with multiple publishers seasons before a book’s launch, they know what new cover trends are cropping up and can predict which will take off.

All of that knowledge, gleaned from direct interaction with readers and buyers of books, trickles down from retail buyers and store managers to a publisher’s sales team, and through them to its marketing team. We communicate that back to design, and they listen, because getting a book into the hands of as many readers as possible requires the full support and confidence of everyone who has a hand in selling it. Book buyers make decisions on how many books to stock and how much prominence to give them on shelves based, in part, on their prediction of a cover’s success, and that push makes an immense difference. So every publisher does its best to make a buyer drool over as many of their covers as possible.

I’m very happy to be part of a small house in which every single book gets the very best cover treatment we can give it. Knowing just how far a cover goes towards making a book a success, my coworkers often redesign covers numerous times before printing a book, seeking feedback from the marketing and sales teams on each new look. And even after a book is printed and released, the marketing and sales teams carefully monitor feedback on the book's cover from its target audience, often suggesting creative ways to attract even more readers in reprints or new editions. We—or any other publisher—might create a new cover for a paperback edition when we don’t see the sales numbers we’d like, or when we think we might be able to interest a new audience in the book and thus reach readers we might not otherwise have found. Sometimes we release a new cover because readers are asking for it and we like to make them happy! In the instance of this special edition of Shannon Hale’s Forest Born which is coming out soon, the special edition cover appeals to older readers who remember the Books of Bayern from years ago, whereas the newer series covers appeal to a younger audience discovering the books for the first time.

It’s fascinating stuff, this cover design business, and I hope to be able to talk about it even more in the coming months. But enough of my chatter. What appeals to you in book covers? Do you think that marketing and sales should have so much say when it comes to a book's design, or should that be left to the creatives? What are your hopes—and fears—for the cover of your own book when it’s published?